Passover and Voting with Your Feet for Freedom

Passover is perhaps the ultimate holiday for people like me who celebrate the freedom-enhancing potential of voting with your feet. After all, it’s about people who voted with with their feet to escape slavery. Economist Arnold Kling, however, is more skeptical. He poses the following “libertarian seder questions”:

1. Why did the Egyptians not attempt to escape to freedom with Moses?

2. Why did the Hebrews not escape much sooner?

One answer to (1) might be that Egyptians were not as desperate to leave. They were not as brutally enslaved as the Hebrews.

One answer to (2) might be that the Hebrews were not so badly off under previous Pharoahs. The story reads that there arose a cruel Pharoah who made life unbearable for the Hebrews. That implies that previous Pharoahs were not so unbearable.

Both of these answers pose problems for libertarians. They suggest that for most people, freedom is relative, not absolute. Moreover, it is bound up with other issues, such as economic well-being and relative status. Perhaps the Egyptians did not feel unfree, because others were even more clearly enslaved. Perhaps the Hebrews tolerated the rule of Pharaohs as long as the dictatorship was relatively benevolent. Perhaps there are many conditions under which large numbers of people will not choose freedom.

I am a bit more optimistic than Kling. I think the Passover story suggests that both the Egyptians and the Hebrews chose the option that gave them greater freedom than the available alternatives.

The answer to Kling’s question 1 is that running away with Moses would not have made the Egyptians more free than they were before. After all, the Israelite polity led by Moses and Aaron was no libertarian or even liberal paradise. It was a repressive theocratic oligarchy. Any Egyptians who fled with Moses would not, for example, have been allowed to continue worshiping their pagan gods. If they persisted in their traditional religious ceremonies, they might have suffered the same grisly fate as those Jews who worshiped the golden calf. Given that the Egyptians, unlike the Hebrews, were not enslaved and that Pharaoh was willing to let them worship their own gods freely, I’d say that the Egyptians were more free as a result of choosing to stay than they would have been had they gone with Moses.

As for why the Hebrews did not leave under the previous, less oppressive pharaohs, the answer is that there was nowhere to go that was better. At that time, virtually any area that the Hebrews could have realistically moved to was under the control of rulers similar to the pharaohs in respect to the amount of freedom they granted their subjects. Indeed, thanks to Joseph’s influence, the Hebrews probably got a better deal from the earlier pharaohs than they could have gotten elsewhere.

Only when the new, more cruel pharaoh enslaved the Hebrews did the Egyptian government become more repressive than the available alternatives. When that happened, the Hebrews acted accordingly and voted with their feet for greater freedom. Moses was no Frederick Douglass when it came to promoting liberty for former slaves. But he was a big improvement over the new pharaoh.

Ultimately, both the Egyptians and the Hebrews chose the lesser evil among severely flawed alternatives. That isn’t the traditional interpretation of Passover. But it captures the real world experience of voting with your feet well. There is no perfect promised land out there. But being able to choose where you live is still tremendously empowering because it can greatly increase your freedom relative to where it would be otherwise.

That’s not to deny that people, including libertarians, weigh considerations other than freedom in deciding where to live. However, extensive evidence from both international and domestic migration patterns suggests that people routinely choose freer jurisdictions over less free ones, often in large numbers.

Why is this holiday different from all other holidays?

Because it’s the only one that celebrates voting with your feet for greater freedom!

UPDATE: A commenter refers me to Exodus 12:38, which states that “a mixed multitude” of other people fled along with the Hebrews. That actually reinforces my argument. After all, some Egyptians were more oppressed by Pharaoh than others, and there were surely many non-Jewish slaves in Egypt. Some of these people had it so bad under Pharaoh that living under Moses’ rule would increase their freedom, even if that were not true for the majority of Egyptians.